Trombonist, producer and songwriter Willie Colón made salsa history through his collaborations with Héctor Lavoe and Rubén Blades -- as well as his own innovative solo recordings. But if there’s one defining moment in Colón’s career that established him as an unequivocal member of salsa royalty, it’s his pairing with former Sonora Matancera diva Celia Cruz for a number of classic albums that include Only They Could Have Made This Album, Celia y Willie, and the 1987 session that you are holding in your hands. ...MORE >
Trombonist, producer and songwriter Willie Colón made salsa history through his collaborations with Héctor Lavoe and Rubén Blades -- as well as his own innovative solo recordings. But if there’s one defining moment in Colón’s career that established him as an unequivocal member of salsa royalty, it’s his pairing with former Sonora Matancera diva Celia Cruz for a number of classic albums that include Only They Could Have Made This Album, Celia y Willie, and the 1987 session that you are holding in your hands.
“When Celia and I started working together, I was very young and she was super established already,” recalls Willie from his home in New York. “She was an institution. Working with her was a graduation into the major leagues as far as I was concerned.”
Understandably, Colón felt intimidated at the prospect of working with such a legendary performer. As soon as the collaboration began, however, he was pleasantly surprised.
“In the end, she was easier to work with than some of the younger divas of my generation,” he says with a chuckle. “Celia was very patient and always willing to listen to new ideas, no matter how silly they might have been. In retrospect, I think that may have been one of the keys to her artistic longevity. She didn’t rule anything out. She knew that music is an art -- and not an exact science. I was surprised at how easy it was to work with her. Once we got a method down, we were able to finish a lot of work. She had a discipline and patience that were just incredible.”
Together with Celia, Colón recorded a number of straight-ahead salsa numbers, such as most of the tracks included here (check out the combination of Willie’s epic trombone sound with the diva’s raucous vocalizing on the excellent “Yo Sí Soy Veneno”). But he also pushed Celia to experiment with unusual combinations of textures, and adventurous forays into funk, samba and bossa nova.
“When I first played the original version of “Usted Abusó” to her, Celia told me: ‘Ay, Willito, yo no puedo cantar eso (I can’t sing this stuff).’ The unusual chord structure of the song puzzled her. She was reluctant at first, but took a shot at it. The song ended up being the big hit on that album. It was a stretch, it was refreshing, and the world was ready for it.”
The Winners is made up mostly of pungent, no-frills salsa numbers -- except for the exotic opening track. Entitled "Un Bembé Pa'Yemayá," it is a daring combination of traditional Cuban rumba and mainstream funk. It is also the only song here that positions this record firmly in late 80s territory.
This was the last collaboration between Celia and Willie. From a distance, Colón watched the diva as she became a Latin pop phenomenon during the last chapter of her career, with mega-hits such as "La Vida Es Un Carnaval" and the awkward hip-hop fusion of "La Negra Tiene Tumbao."
"I wish I could have gotten another shot at working with her," he says wistfully. "It was a privilege. Celia was a humble person -- modest and respectful of other people's opinions. It would have been great to do one more record together."
"At the end of her career, record companies were trying to turn her into a pop artist," he concludes. "She didn't have to do that, you know. Celia was already an Afro-Caribbean icon."
José A. Ortíz – Piano
Marc Quiñonez – Timbales, Minor Percussion
Raymond Colón – Bongo
Oscar Cartaya – Bass
Steve Turre – Trombone
Barry Rogers – Trombone
Angel Vazquez – Trombone
Leopoldo Pineda – Trombone
Lewis Kahn – Trombone
Bobby Allende – Conga
Producer – Willie Colón
Executive Producer – Jerry Masucci
Engineer – Irv Greenbaum
Arrangements – José A. Ortíz (“Son Matamoros”, “Un Bembé Pa’ Yemayá”), Javier Vazquez (“Dice Anton”, “El Paraiso”), Marty Sheller (“Yo Si Soy Veneno”), Isidro Infante (“Vendedores”, “Se Tambalea”), Luis Ramirez (“Ache Para Todos”)
Original Album Artwork – Ron Levine
Original Album Photography – Ricardo Betancourt